The Kentucky Wildcats are 3-0, and that’s one of the few good things you can say about this one.
Despite being favored by 30+ points at every major sportsbook, the Cats did their best to help Chattanooga pull off what would have arguably been the biggest upset of the 2021 college football seasons thus far.
Thankfully, Kentucky did just enough to avoid losing a program-damaging game to an FCS team, defeating Chattanooga 28-23.
Time for some risers and fallers.
TYRELL FREAKING AJIAN: As mentioned above, this would have been the kind of loss that may actually damage the long-term outlook of what otherwise looked like a bright future for this program. But Ajian, a redshirt senior who’s never lost a non-conference game he played in, made the play of the game late in the fourth quarter when he returned an interception 95 yards for what was technically the game-winning score.
Izayah Cummings: While it was Ajian who made the game’s biggest play, it was Cummings who actually put Kentucky ahead in the fourth quarter with his 31-yard touchdown. It was his only catch, but it may prove to be one of the offense’s biggest plays of the season, and it hopefully will help lead to more snaps and targets for the guy who was once compared to Kyle Pitts.
Isaiah Epps: After a nice showing in Week 1, Epps was a ghost in last week’s narrow win over Missouri. It didn’t take long to get him going today, as Epps hauled in a 20-yard touchdown to put Kentucky up 14-7 early in the first quarter. In just three games, the senior from Oklahoma has already registered season career-highs in yards (104) and touchdowns (1). As much as he’s been hyped up in the past by coaches, it’s still a pleasant surprise to see Epps finally coming into his own as his college career winds down.
Wan’Dale Robinson: While the emergence of Epps and Cummings is a nice bonus for this offense, there’s no question Robinson is the rock of this passing game. After grabbing eight passes for 111 yards, Robinson is 3/3 on 100+ yard receiving games this season, already more than he had in 18 career games at Nebraska. As he continues to be the focal point of this passing game, Robinson looks like a future NFL player who may sneak into Day 2 of the 2022 NFL Draft if he comes out. And if we’re picking a team MVP after three weeks, it’s hard not to go with the Frankfort native.
DeAndre Square: Through three games, there’s no question Square has been Kentucky’s best linebacker and arguably defender. That continued today as Square made a team-high two tackles for loss to go with five overall tackles. He even pressured the passer several times and finished with two QB hits. With Kentucky’s pass rush struggling, perhaps it’s time to get Square some more pass-rushing attempts.
Kentucky’s big game letdowns: Far too often under Mark Stoops, Kentucky has had a major letdown performance following what was deemed a ‘big’ home game. Everyone at Kentucky and their grandma hyped up last week’s clash with Missouri as just that, and surely enough, they followed it up with a stinker. This was one of Kentucky’s worst overall performances in recent memory, as they made an FCS team in Chattanooga — a 33-point underdog at game time — look like a legit FBS squad. The Cats have a lot of work to do if they’re going to win a night game in Columbia next week, let alone come out of the rest of this schedule with a winning record.
Kentucky’s turnover margin: It’s been nothing short of a disaster when it comes to the turnover battle. Kentucky is now -6 in turnover margin through the first 12 quarters of football this season after finishing 2020 with a +10 margin. While the offense committing eight turnovers in that span is inexcusable, the defense forcing a whopping two turnovers through 12 quarters is unacceptable, especially when two of the teams were Chattanooga and Louisiana Monroe. They can’t keep letting teams dink and dunk down the field and not take the ball away if they’re going to have any hope of slowing down teams like Georgia and Florida.
The announcers: When you’ve got a game with no TV coverage, you know you’re not getting the A-list announcers. That was the case today as the SEC Network+ crew managed to call Mark Stoops by his brother’s name, Bob Stoops, several times throughout the broadcast. C’mon, man.
Chris Rodriguez: Despite rushing for over 200 yards last week, Rodriguez did have two fumbles at the 1-yard line that could have easily led to a Missouri win. That apparently was enough to have him not start this game, as Kavosiey Smoke and even Mike Drennen got touches before Rodriguez did. And when he got in the game, Rodriguez did very little with his touches and finished with a mere 46 yards on 13 carries (3.5 avg).
Will Levis: Despite having a cannon of an arm, Levis was never accurate enough to effectively utilize it during his career at Penn State. It looked like he may have solved those issues in Kentucky’s first two games, but today, those issues re-emerged in a big way. He struggled to find any rhythm against an FCS team today, and many of his deep shots were off the mark. His second-quarter interception thrown while near his own goal line was brutal and the kind of play that can get you beat in the SEC. After looking like one of the SEC’s best passers through two weeks, today was a big step backward for Levis.
Beau Allen: This was supposed to be the game we got to see Allen get extensive playing time once the game got out of hand. That’s what happened in Week 1, though Allen attempted just seven passes in that game, and the hope was he’d see more time today to get comfortable in an offense he’ll be running if Levis goes down. But with the game close throughout, Allen never saw the field, and it remains to be seen if he can keep this offense moving if something happens to Levis. And if Levis stays upright, it will be awhile before Allen sees the field again.
Liam Coen: After being the toast of the town for the first two weeks, Coen had about as disastrous of an offensive game plan as one could have. This was so bad it made Eddie Gran look like Lincoln Riley. Even the offensive line was struggling to block FCS defenders, and Coen never could adjust to something that worked consistently. While the defense had its issues, the bulk of today’s blame rests on an offense that simply looked like it had no business playing in the SEC. Here’s to hoping this was just a one-game stinker and not a sign of struggles to come.
Special Teams: Kentucky’s special teams have been anything but special thus far. Last week in the final minutes of a 35-28 game, a missed blocking assignment on the field-goal unit allowed Missouri to block what would have been the game-sealing field goal and nearly rally for a miracle win. Today, Kentucky had a kickoff go out of bounds, then got called for holding three plays later on the punt return unit. Wan’Dale Robinson also allowed a punt to be downed near his own goal line. And while the Cats recovered the game-sealing onside kick, it went way too far and was almost recovered by the Mocs before Josh Ali finally snagged it.
So, who was your biggest riser/faller? Let us know in the comments section!